Flash Memoir: The Building Block of Fiction

Guest blog by Jane Hertenstein

Flash is a unique and adaptable form that can be applied to almost any genre.

There are flash mysteries. Postcard flash might only be about travel—you are limited to the amount of space typically taken up by the back of a postcard. For example, flash foodies write very small about . . . FOOD.

I write flash memoir.

What I love most about flash memoir is the inconsequential. The ordinary. Again, by freeze-framing a moment we are capturing it, holding it, and then letting it go for others. Some of the best writing resonates with us because we have a similar memory or experience. Memoir is a way of validating what we think happened and also relating to others. In many ways, we all share the same human emotions that are expressed through memory. A Christmas fruitcake, laundry hanging on the line, feather beds. The essence of ordinary, though humble, reveals an extraordinary life.

Sometimes all it takes is a nudge to get the engine of memory to turn over. Once started memories, whether invited or not, continue to roll over us. What one needs to do is create a habit of acting upon these flashes by quickly jotting them down before they disappear. Using a process I call Write Right Now, a kind of carpe diem, I seize the moment and work on that memory flash to flesh it out on paper.

Often I begin with a memory, a flash, and find that it morphs, blurs into the realms of fiction, or vice versa. Today’s journals more than ever are open to hybrid writing, a mix of genre, fact and fiction.

Carlos Eire, an esteemed academic at Yale University, set out to write fiction based upon his boyhood growing up in Cuba before the Revolution. Before his life was shattered, Carlos ended up at age eleven in Miami, Florida all alone as part of Operation Peter Pan where thousands of Cuban children were airlifted unaccompanied by parents. When his editor read the manuscript, she asked him how much of it was autobiographical. He had to admit, all of it. Yet, by writing in a framework of fiction, he was able to trick himself into telling his story. The book Waiting for Snow in Havana won the National Book Award. For Nonfiction.

Or take the opposite approach: Mischa Berlinski, a young journalist in Thailand, set out to write a non-fiction account of the Lisu tribe. He was having a tough time selling his proposal. At the same time, he was having difficulty with the writing. The words weren’t jumping off the page. He decided to loosen up and write the story as fiction, inserting into his tale a character much like himself, actually naming the reporter/narrator of the tale Mischa Berlinski. He invented a plot of murder and intrigue that would use all his research. The result was Fieldwork, a National Book Award winner.

For fiction.

All this to say that whatever we write, micro or macro, is fodder for the creative process.

I encourage readers to build a portfolio of small flash memories which can eventually be expanded upon or become the foundation for a scene. Memories are the building blocks to most everything we write. We only need to begin.

In my new eBook Flash Memoir: Writing Prompts to Get You Flashing I offer over 90 pages of prompts and examples along with other resources to get the memoirist remembering. And, not just that, but writing.

Ernest Hemingway had a background in journalism. In Our Time contains small vignettes between longer stories such as “Big Two-Hearted River.” I’m not sure what he meant by doing this. Perhaps they were palate cleansers, you know like eating cheese or grapes between courses. As a foreign correspondent, he would eventually report on the Greco-Turkish population exchange, the Spanish Civil War, and, was embedded with the 22nd Infantry Regiment during World War II. He was present at D-Day and for the liberation of Paris. Quite a few of the inter-chapter pieces were vignettes of his war experiences written in the journalistic style without bias, comment, or the slightest hint of hindsight.

Write right now.

What’s in the news? Using a headline as a prompt, write a flash. This can be strictly memoir, or you can take any headline and place yourself there as a reporter and write fictionally what you see. Or, perhaps, a headline such as School Closures, affects you—write your flash as an opinion (op-ed) piece. An artist after 9/11 created a word collage based upon the weather report for that day memorable blue-sky day.


Jane Hertenstein is the author of over 90 published stories, a combination of fiction, creative non-fiction, and blurred genre both micro and macro. In addition, she has published a YA novel, Beyond Paradise and a non-fiction project, Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady, which garnered national reviews. Jane is the recipient of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Rosebud, Word Riot, Flashquake, Fiction Fix, Frostwriting, and several themed anthologies. She can also be found at http://memoirouswrite.blogspot.com/ where she gets 10,000 hits a month.